The history of the Anglo-Saxons is the history of a cultural identity. It developed from divergent groups in association with the people's adoption of Christianity, and was integral to the establishment of various kingdoms. Threatened by extended Danish invasions and military occupation of eastern England, this identity was re-established; it dominated until after the Norman Conquest. The visible Anglo-Saxon culture can be seen in the material culture of buildings, dress styles, illuminated texts and grave goods. Behind the symbolic nature of these cultural emblems, there are strong elements of tribal and lordship ties. The elite declared themselves as kings who developed burhs, and identified their roles and peoples in Biblical terms. Above all, as Helena Hamerow has observed, "local and extended kin groups remained...the essential unit of production throughout the Anglo-Saxon period." The effects persist in the 21st century as, according to a study published in March 2015, the genetic makeup of British populations today shows divisions of the tribal political units of the early Anglo-Saxon period.
Use of the term Anglo-Saxon assumes that the words Angles, Saxons or Anglo-Saxon have the same meaning in all the sources. This term began to be used only in the 8th century to distinguish "Germanic" groups in Britain from those on the continent (Old Saxony in Northern Germany). Catherine Hills summarised the views of many modern scholars in her observation that attitudes towards Anglo-Saxons, and hence the interpretation of their culture and history, have been "more contingent on contemporary political and religious theology as on any kind of evidence."
The Old English ethnonym "Angul-Seaxan" comes from the Latin Angli-Saxones and became the name of the peoples Bede calls Anglorum and Gildas calls Saxones. Anglo-Saxon is a term that was rarely used by Anglo-Saxons themselves; it is not an autonym. It is likely they identified as ængli, Seaxe or, more probably, a local or tribal name such as Mierce, Cantie, Gewisse, Westseaxe, or Norþanhymbre. Also, the use of Anglo-Saxon disguises the extent to which people identified as Anglo-Scandinavian after the Viking age, or as Anglo-Norman after the Norman conquest in 1066.
The earliest historical references using this term are from outside Britain, referring to piratical Germanic raiders, 'Saxones' who attacked the shores of Britain and Gaul in the 3rd century AD. Procopius states that Britain was settled by three races: the Angiloi, Frisones, and Britons. The term Angli Saxones seems to have first been used in continental writing of the 8th century; Paul the Deacon uses it to distinguish the English Saxons from the continental Saxons (Ealdseaxe, literally, 'old Saxons'). The name therefore seemed to mean "English" Saxons.
The Christian church seems to have used the word Angli; for example in the story of Pope Gregory I and his remark, "Non Angli sed angeli" (not English but angels). the terms ænglisc ('the language') and Angelcynn ('the people') were also used by West Saxon King Alfred to refer to the people; in doing so he was following established practice. The first use of the term Anglo-Saxon amongst the insular sources is in the titles for Athelstan: Angelsaxonum Denorumque gloriosissimus rex (most glorious king of the Anglo-Saxons and of the Danes) and rex Angulsexna and Norþhymbra imperator paganorum gubernator Brittanorumque propugnator (king of the Anglo-Saxons and emperor of the Northumbrians, governor of the pagans, and defender of the Britons). At other times he uses the term rex Anglorum (king of the English), which presumably meant both Anglo-Saxons and Danes. Alfred the Great used Anglosaxonum Rex. The term Engla cyningc (King of the English) is used by Æthelred. King Cnut in 1021 was the first to refer to the land and not the people with this term: ealles Englalandes cyningc (King of all England). These titles express the sense that the Anglo-Saxons were a Christian people with a king anointed by God.